KAMPALA – This week, the international manhunt for Joseph Kony came to an undistinguished end. Both Uganda and the United States said they were withdrawing forces dedicated to catching the warlord, who remains on the run despite a multi-year, multimillion-dollar chase.
Just five years ago, Kony became one of the world’s most-feared monsters. More than 100 million people watched the viral 30-minute “Kony 2012" video, which detailed Kony’s brutality during the two-decade insurgency he and his Lord’s Resistance Army waged against the Ugandan government.
But it’s been a long time since Kony was the menace the video made him out to be
The Lord’s Resistance Army is now a shadow of its former self, having dwindled from a force of roughly 2,000 to fewer than 100 men. The group hit its peak more than a decade ago, when it terrorized northern Uganda, killing more than 100,000 people and forcing another 2 million out of their homes.
By the time “Kony 2012” was released by the San Diego-based nonprofit organization Invisible Children, the LRA was already on the run. Kony had been pushed out of Uganda and chased across the wilds of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
The LRA continues to carry out intermittent attacks, but it has not been responsible for major atrocities since 2010. The group is believed to be operating from a remote and largely ungoverned region at the intersection of Sudan, South Sudan and the CAR known as Kafia Kingi.
Ben Shepherd, an analyst and consulting fellow at London's Chatham House think tank, says it's now hard to tell the groups apart from other armed factions taking advantage of the instability in central Africa.
“There is no sense under which Kony and other senior leaders should be allowed to fade into obscurity because of what they did,” he said. “But as an immediate strategic calculation, can one differentiate between them and smugglers, armed herdsmen, bandits [or] random folks running around in bits of Kafia Kingi? Probably not at this point.”
But advocacy by Invisible Children and other U.S.-based groups continued to boost Kony’s profile — and make the case for American military intervention. The U.S. provided military support to Uganda beginning in 2008 and deployed 100 special operations troops to serve as advisers in the hunt for Kony in 2011.
“If you look at it from a regional perspective, it’s been a bit surprising that there was so much attention to that group, and it was mainly because of internal American reasons,” said Kristof Titeca, a lecturer at the University of Antwerp who studies rebel movements in East and Central Africa.
The group’s legacy of horrors made them seem particularly extreme, he added.
“At that time, you didn’t have many other actors which were committing these mass atrocities. There was no ISIS yet, there was no Boko Haram,” Titeca said. “If you look at the world stage of rebel groups or the world stage of terror, they were the ultimate evil.”
Only part of the LRA's subsequent decline is because of the military mission against Kony.
In 2000, Uganda created an amnesty program that allowed roughly 13,000 former LRA fighters to lay down their weapons and come home without prosecution. The program encouraged defections via loudspeakers on helicopters and in leaflets. Combined with military pressure, the amnesty policy has been credited with significantly reducing the LRA’s fighting force.
To hear the United States and Uganda tell it, the decision to withdraw is proof that you don’t necessarily have to catch your enemy to beat him. At some point, they argue, you can say enough is enough.
The United States has spent more than $780 million on the anti-Kony operation since 2008. Before taking office this year, a Trump administration transition team questioned its value, according to the New York Times.
The operation has similarly stretched Ugandan resources and provided several moments of bad press. The Ugandan military faced allegations that soldiers committed rape and sexual violence against women and girls in the Central African Republic. Human rights groups have also accused the military of committing atrocities of its own during the earlier years of civil war in northern Uganda.
Still, Kony’s group has proven remarkably resilient. The LRA has taken advantage of its remote hideout among crisis-stricken countries, and is said to have killed three people and abducted nearly 150 more this year, according to the LRA Crisis Tracker. One person was killed and two were injured in an incident as recently as last week.
That has some analysts and advocacy groups worried that Kony will use diminished military pressure against him to regroup and rebuild.
“The withdrawal of Ugandan and U.S. troops is going to leave a huge vacuum,” argued Martin Ewi, a senior researcher at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies.
“It is true the group has been weakened,” he said. “But it has not been defeated, so therefore we can’t sit comfortably and say this group does not pose a threat to us.”
The United States apparently agrees. Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of U.S. Africa Command, told reporters on Thursday that U.S. forces will continue to help train militaries in central Africa.
"We will continue to work with those countries with training and exercises," Waldhauser said. "Even though we are officially ending [the mission], we are certainly aware of the fact that we do not want to leave a void there."